Abramoff associate's trial a K Street test


The trial of one of Jack Abramoff’s close associates — a case that will test how far lobbyists may push influence and access — began Tuesday under the watchful eye of K Street.

Kevin Ring is the first associate of the imprisoned lobbyist to fight corruption charges in a jury trial. Jury selection and pre-trial motions began Tuesday and will continue this week, with opening arguments set for Friday.

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Ring says the expensive tickets and meals he gave government officials and congressional aides were normal tools of the lobbying trade. Prosecutors argue they were part of a pay-to-play conspiracy that involved illegal gratuities intended to curry access and influence government action in favor of clients.

The defendant is only the second person involved in the Abramoff scandal to fight the charges at trial. Two separate juries found David Safavian, former chief of staff of the General Services Administration, guilty of lying to investigators after winning one trial on appeal.

Sixteen other lobbyists as well as Abramoff and former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) have plead guilty to charges. Ring initially cooperated with investigators in more than 100 hours of interviews, but stopped when prosecutors wanted him to plead guilty and implicate others because, according to Ring, he did nothing out of the ordinary in the lobbying profession.

A 38-year-old father of two, Ring is charged with 10 felonies and could face years of prison time if convicted. Some of the charges carry a maximum of 20 years in jail.

There have been problems with prosecution and defense witnesses this week. David Ayres, former chief of staff to Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is now with the Ashcroft Group, a government-relations firm, plans to invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination if the defense calls him to testify, according to court documents.

A prosecution witness could prove even less useful. Ann Copland, a former staffer for Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), told government investigators in January that she “could not bring herself to admit that the things of value she received [from Ring] influenced her, even in part, in her performance of official actions,” Ring’s lawyers said in a filing, citing recently disclosed information from prosecutors.

Copland pleaded guilty in March to accepting gifts in exchange for official acts. During a pre-trial discussion before Judge Ellen Huvelle on Tuesday, Ring’s defense team argued that Copland did not believe Ring’s gifts influenced her to help Ring and one of his clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

Instead, defense attorneys argued that Copland said she regarded the Choctaw as her constituents and would have worked on their behalf regardless of Ring’s gifts.

Ring’s attorneys argued that previous legal decisions required “an official act” to be linked to the gratuities for any laws to be broken.

Copland admitted giving better access to the lobbyists and another Abramoff client, Primedia, because of the gifts, the lawyers said. Although Primedia, a broadcasting company seeking money from the Centers for Disease Control, was not involved with issues Copland handled for the senator, she told a colleague to take the lobbyists’ calls because she knew them and had accepted tickets.

“The fact that she agreed to give someone access is not a conspiracy to commit a crime,” Andrew Wise, one of Ring’s attorneys, told Huvelle.

He said the government wanted to have Copland testify only to discuss sordid details about the $25,000 in event tickets she accepted; she once sent a BlackBerry message from a box seat to a lobbyist to complain about the quality of the food. This information, the defense argued, could prejudice the jury without having any proper bearing on Ring’s case.

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“I know why the government loves this witness — she’s stinky,” Wise remarked.

Prosecutors counter that case law shows “access” is one of the things lobbyists can buy.

“What is the word ‘access’?” Michael Ferrara, an attorney for the prosecution, asked. “That inside help — it’s one thing when a lobbyist cold-calls you, but it’s a lot different if a buddy in the office tells you to take the call.”

Huvelle said that before she could rule on whether Copland should testify or not, she wanted a better explanation from the prosecutors of the legal precedents demonstrating that the purchase of access is potentially criminal.

The government also is having second thoughts about another witness, Robert Coughlin II, a former liaison in the Justice Department’s Office of Legislative Affairs and deputy chief of staff in the criminal division under then-Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher. Coughlin pleaded guilty in 2008 to a conflict of interest between his job and his relationship with Ring, a friend of two decades. He too helped with the Choctaw matter and accepted free concert tickets and luxury seats at sporting events, meals and golf outings.

In meetings with prosecutors last week, Coughlin denied being influenced by Ring’s gifts and said the decision to charge him with a felony was an abuse of prosecutorial discretion, according to a pre-trial letter Ferrara sent to Ring’s lawyers.

This story was updated at 11:20 a.m.